If you are going to retweet, friend, follow, or otherwise connect with your students on social media, make an informed decision about this one ethical boundary in which many institutions provide little guidance.
What Do Students Think?
First, the popularity of the professor matters in what students think is appropriate. Unsurprisingly, students are reluctant to friend unknown or disliked professors (Karl & Peluchette, 2011), but not popular and well-liked professors (Hewitt & Forte, 2006). In both studies, however, a sizeable proportion of students viewed friending professors as an intrusion to their privacy. Second, the type of student also affects what they think. One study found that student pharmacists were more uncomfortable with connecting with faculty on social media than were grad students (Bongartz et al., 2011). Last, the type of interaction affects what students think is appropriate on social media. One study examined students’ reaction to active or passive behaviors that were initiated by either students or faculty (Teclehaimanot & Hickman, 2011). Active behaviors engaged another user (e.g., commenting on photos, sending messages, etc.), whereas passive behaviors were reading through another user’s posts. Students were more accepting of student-passive interaction and less accepting of teacher-active interaction on social media than other types of interactions.
As an instructor, anytime you present yourself in a role other than “professor,” you are creating an opportunity for a dual relationship with your students. It can only be a matter of time when nonprofessionalism creeps into teacher-student interactions (Judd & Johnston, 2012). There may also be legal issues for faculty when it comes to use of social media. Employers can face legal liability for employees’ use of social media. For example, employees who endorse their company's product on their personal social media site must disclose their connection with the product to avoid violating Federal Communication Commission regulations (Jennings, Blount, & Weatherly, 2014). Some companies and universities may ask that employees put a disclaimer on their personal sites that state that the employee’s views do not reflect those of their employer. Universities may be even more motivated than private-sector companies to manage online employee speech and endorsements if students are involved in online communication.
Benefits of Using Social Media
Conclusion: When done right, there may be some benefits to using social media with students. Researchers found that students preferred interacting with teachers via online groups rather than interacting as “friends” on Facebook (Cheung & Vogel, 2010). Other researchers argue that social media can be used to enhance creativity (Friedman & Friedman, 2013). For example, students must find ways to collaborate with fellow students in full or partially online courses that require social media use. Social media is not just restricted to personal sites but can also include wikis, blogs, and virtual labs. In such environments, professors can still maintain an adequate level of control over students’ learning environment (Tomberg, Laanpere, Ley, & Normak, 2013). In addition, a recent study on Twitter use in the classroom found that students reported being exposed to current information that they would not otherwise have encountered (Jacquemin, Smelser, & Bernot, 2014). These studies suggest that limited use of social media in the classroom can lead to certain benefits insofar as social media directly relates to course content.
Although students generally view instructor-initiated interactions on social media as an intrusion to privacy, there are several learning benefits from using social media. These benefits are restricted to applications that directly relate to course content. Instructors should still be wary of the ethical and legal challenges that can arise from social media use, especially as it may interfere with student-teacher relationships.